Vacation “the action of leaving something one previously occupied” couldn’t be a better word to describe the summer holidays for working mothers, as Danusia explores in this bonus episode. Read the full transcript below…

Hello and welcome to a School for Mothers Bonus episode. I’m Danusia Malina-Derben, your host.

It’s over Listeners. It’s the first weekend after school summer holidays ended. Done and busted open. Another fantasy-together-summer laid to rest. Dead till it comes around next year. 

For them: Lazy, fun, adventures. Sunshine, movies, outings. Relaxed, play, treats. Long days, makeshift dens, meals with pudding. Routine interrupted. Soft shoes, shorts, squabbles. Lazy, fun, adventures. 

Last year I drove us to a remote micro island in the Hebrides where we played Swallows and Amazons endlessly. Magic and more magic every single day. It’s the island J M Barrie wrote Peter Pan on; Neverland set me up for failure. 

Because this year I went laissez faire. Off piste. In other words, I winged it. This is from a woman who plans every detail meticulously. How else do you imagine I keep so much together; work, family, sanity, and of course, peace of mind. 

Back to this summer. I was less prepared than my usual curated logistical puzzle. 

More than that, as a result, I was less prepared for the feeling of being sucked into a summer world sharply reduced. I’d forgotten what it was to have what I’d known as my life suddenly dissolve, right in front of my own harried eyes. And all by my own making. 

Only weeks before, I’d been a glowing orb of productivity, a lightning rod for action (the more brazen the better) and razor focused. But everything changed when my teens stopped their exams following close on the back of months of revision meltdowns and a merry go round hormonal thrill ride. This coincided with school holidays for my triplets. Everything changed. 

Within days I was searching for my former working self, but to no avail. Although I could glimpse myself, in snatched pockets of time at the edge of everything family, I felt emptied against my will. I knew – but had forgotten in naive amnesia – that unless I insist wholeheartedly on myself in a manner of life and deathlike advocacy – then I will (must?) check my own life at the door. 

Let’s burst the bubble that my kids lives are mine. That their concerns, interests and adventures are entangled mirrors of mine. Naturally I want my children to revel in life, to take their pleasure with it and to never tire of excavating meaning from all they put into it. But they are NOT me. For I am separate to them. It beggars belief that I feel it necessary to speak this obvious delineation. They are them, I am me. 

When they, for instance, have lengthy holidays it’s assumed (in many circles) that I’ll vacate myself enough so that I can concentrate on those I say I love. Caregiving is an extreme deal. 

As systems stand – educationally, organisationally, financially, governmentally, societally…mothers lives are not our own. They belong to our children. Their lives belong to them, as a right. Our lives, if we’re mothers, belong to our children too. As a right. 

This summer (because I shoehorned myself around the entitlement of others) I’ve stretched myself to near oblivion. When I had  a discussion with one teen about pulling together, team playing and my own need to find time to think and work, I was met with the classic, “You chose to have us, Don’t be a mother if you don’t want to focus just on us”. 

Listeners, to collide full frontal with a cage-making narrative of motherhood spewed from my own beloved child has to go down as nothing short of transformational. What I know is that when I chose to become a mother I did not also subscribe to an annihilation of my own self. Compromise, sure. Death of myself, no thanks. 

The motherhood pendulum swung some time ago into a role expecting us to provide, serve and grow future generations in an intensive sacrificial mode. To feel guilt is a mark of love, to eye roll at injustice and ask for crumbs round the edge while calling it lucky is called flex, and to insist on ourselves in school holidays and beyond, remains revolutionary. Let’s remind ourselves its 2019, not 1959 which brings me to modern motherhood which always makes me laugh as a phrase. 

What we have to start talking about instead is progressive motherhood. A version that recognises that if we’re struggling to work while raising our families it is NOT because WE are individual failures it’s because systemic barriers exist that stop us. 

That these systems have been built in ways that thwart us. It’s why we get tired not only with the privilege that is mothering with its relentless repetition, domestic constancy and enduring resilience that’s the epicentre of raising functional happy children. But because we’re battling against systems that simultaneously invite our talent to be productive in the economy but tie our ankles together (metaphorically) so that we haven’t chance of moving in directions that seem, let alone are, self serving, agency infused, and self fulfilling. Our free labour is the glue in society. 

This summer I forgot to battle plan for myself. I forgot to create my personal war room so that I could decide on ‘military’ tactics to hold onto myself. In the middle of A level, GCSE and triplets I forgot that I’d need to plan even MORE than usual. 

I thought, after so many summers as a mother, I knew the ropes. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I fell foul of the notion that I’d been here before when in reality I’ve not. Not with these children, and not in these specific circumstances. 

As they now enter Autumn (talking fondly of summer memories) and as they face fresh futures, I’m left knowing I was outmanoeuvred by systems that don’t give a damn about what I, as a person in my own right, wants. 

My role as mother trumps my personhood. Therefore, I can’t figure culturally in the centre of my own life unless I make sure that I do. No one, least of all my family, will make this happen, on my behalf. In a world that teaches women that once we become mothers it’s all about others, my job is to commit to myself more than leaning into any spoon fed mumsy fantasy laced with self-harming naïveté that’ll surely undo me. 

Listeners, 2020 school summer holidays will be different. I’ll make it so. 

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